Metabolomics, the science of analysing the small molecules that make up the metabolome, is a field of research and diagnostics with immense potential to transform healthcare and scientific understanding. In South Africa, the National Metabolomics Platform (NMP) is at the forefront of this transformative journey, bringing cutting-edge metabolomics services to researchers, students, medical practitioners, patients and laboratories.
A Visionary Beginning
Founded in 2014 as part of the South African Technology Innovation Agency’s initiative to democratise OMICS technology, the NMP found its home at the NWU’s Centre for Human Metabolomics (CHM). Leveraging over three decades of experience in diagnostics and newborn screening for inborn metabolic disorders, the CHM, then housing the Potchefstroom laboratory for inborn metabolic disorders (PLIEM), was the natural choice to host the NMP. Since its inception, the NMP has evolved into a vital player in South Africa’s healthcare sector, offering internationally competitive, efficient, and effective Metabolomics Analytic Services.
At the heart of the NMP’s mission is a commitment to innovation and progress. Staff development and training are prioritised, with the goal of sharing expertise with South Africa’s wider community, including students, laboratory staff, medical practitioners, and seasoned scientists. By delivering world-class analytical services and expert training, the NMP seeks to empower individuals across various disciplines.
The journey has seen significant strides in the development of new metabolomics methodologies, expanding the service portfolio. Rigorous method validation for research and diagnostics purposes has enhanced accuracy, precision, and overall performance, adhering to ISO15189 standards. The acquisition of advanced robotic sample handlers, a custom laboratory information system, biobank facilities, and cutting-edge analytical systems has propelled the laboratory to international standards.
Fostering Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing
Collaborations with organisations like DIPLOMICS and Metabolomics SA underline the NMP’s commitment to student training, workshops, and journal clubs. Industry partnerships with Takeda, Sanofi, and FYMCA Medical facilitate knowledge transfer to medical practitioners and seasoned researchers. The ‘train-the-trainer’ sessions emphasise the potential applications of metabolomics, enlightening participants about its benefits in biological studies. A biweekly CPD-accredited online presentation series, primarily focusing on rare disease diagnosis from both clinical and analytical angles, further enriches the knowledge pool.
Project Analysis Services: Unlocking the Potential
Notably, all diagnostic offerings from the NMP can be tailored for research project analyses. These includes targeted, quantified metabolite analyses, offering advantages when literature reviews suggest known metabolic alterations. These analyses serve specific research cohorts for tasks like identifying potential diagnostic or treatment targets, treatment monitoring, and animal model evaluation. Moreover, the NMP provides untargeted analyses, ideal for exploratory studies investigating the overall effects of factors like disease states or external perturbations on the metabolome. Custom methods can also be developed and/or validated for unique metabolite analysis needs.
Making Metabolomics Accessible and Affordable
Metabolomics instruments often come with a hefty price tag, making it challenging for smaller research labs to acquire. Additionally, metabolomics analyses often form a part of larger research projects rather than being the core focus. The NMP’s project analysis services address these hurdles, offering accessibility and affordability to a broader research community.
A Global Reach
The NMP’s project analysis services extend their impact across borders. While most projects involve human samples, the NMP has conducted research on specimens from diverse mammals, including elephants, rhinoceroses, cheetahs, dogs, and more. These projects significantly contribute to postgraduate studies, resulting in theses, publications, and conference presentations. Beyond South Africa, the NMP’s international reach is strengthened by its accessibility, affordability, and credibility.
The scope of projects spans a diverse range of research fields, from pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, epidemiology, disease characterisation, personalised medicine, and nutrition to wildlife conservation, speciation, and food sustainability.
A Community of Learning
Collaborations extend to analytical equipment suppliers like Agilent, Sciex, Leco, Perkin Elmer, Bruker, and Hamilton robotics. These partnerships provide vital support and training from national and international specialists in metabolomics research and diagnostics. The NMP staff, in addition to their diagnostic responsibilities, actively engage in research, conferences, and collaborations within the metabolomics field.
The NMP’s journey is marked by dedication to advancing metabolomics and ensuring its benefits reach all corners of South Africa’s scientific and healthcare communities. With a vision for the future that is driven by innovation, collaboration, and accessibility, the NMP is poised to elevate metabolomics to new heights in South Africa and beyond.